Variously composed of vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and music educators, Skylark Vocal Ensemble, under Artistic Director Matthew Guard, has over seven years staked out a distinctive and distinguished position among American choral groups. On Saturday at Harvard’s Memorial Church, they debuted what they will be offering on Good Friday for Tenebrae’s Holy Week Festival at St. John’s, Smith Square, in London. Characteristically, Guard imagined an engaging conceit, this time, an international and historically broad a cappella response to the “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,” incorporating a remarkably diverse range of choral works that reflected the emotional import of these utterances rather than using their literal texts. He emphasized American pieces, especially those of Boston composer William Billings (1746-1800), while including African-American spirituals, traditional hymns, as well as sacred works of European composers from the 12th to the 21st centuries. On paper it appeared to be a highly ambitious salmagundi of styles, both textual and musical; in performance it proved to be a very compelling mix of naked emotions and inward reflection, the tender and the searing, the old and the new. The Seven Words plus prologue and epilogue, with one to three works apiece, constituted the nine sections sung without intermission.
Setting the mournful mood, the prologue began with Billings’s round “When Jesus Wept”, a remarkably determined confrontation of grief and the approaching crucifixion, as the ensemble members processed into the sanctuary from the vestibule. Having assembled in front of the chancel, they moved smoothly into a familiar arrangement of the spiritual “Were you there?”, with alto Carrie Cheron supplying the solos in the first two verses and the full ensemble taking over in the final verse, singing with heartfelt expression that encompassed both sorrow and consolation.
The first of the Last Words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” featured two popular hymns in shape note arrangements. “New Britain” (best known as “Amazing Grace”) was more brightly optimistic than is the norm with standard harmonizations, at allegretto moderato; its three verses were sung as two soprano solos and a well-blended trio of the two sopranos plus alto. The Robert Shaw/Alice Parker arrangement of “Wondrous Love,” though set as a lengthy crescendo and making clever use of augmentation, tellingly retained the plainspoken quality of shape note singing.
“Today you will be with me in Paradise” was represented first by Billings’s “Jordan” (“There is a land of pure delight”), described by Guard in his pre-concert talk as “even raucous,” though the rendition was buoyant, boisterous, but agile: raucous of mood, perhaps, never in execution. “Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär” (I wish I were going home), by Hugo Distler (1908-1942), set up a very stark contrast, however, with its enthralling mixture of desolation and hints of hope. Skylark caressed its aching phrases, conveying the poet’s desire to abandon earthly existence for the afterlife. After much Weltschmerz, the quiet final chord in the major brought tears to the eyes. One could not escape the very personal quality of Distler’s setting, given that the composer took his own life in 1942, unable to live under Nazi rule.
The third utterance, “Behold your son: behold your mother,” depicts a parent’s loss of a child, but even here the inventive programming found more emotions than the expected unmitigated grief. “Karitas abundat” (Charity abounds) by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was mystical and otherworldly in alto Clare McNamara’s solo rendition. “Break it Gently to my Mother” is a U.S. Civil War ballad by Frederick Buckley (1833-1864), whose title is the last request of a soldier mortally wounded at Gettysburg. The singing featured warm, consoling tone and clear but natural diction, particularly from the tenor soloist Cory Klose; again, quiet intensity informed an emotionally devastating performance. Before we could be too lulled by the muted, solo tenor conclusion, though, we were plunged into Billings’s “David’s Lamentation,” setting essentially the same text famously employed by the English Renaissance composers Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins; unlike theirs, however, Billings’s version seems to respond to the emotional reaction of King David on first hearing of the death of his son Absalom. Guard’s interpretation, combining a brisk tempo, frequent fortes, and stark straight-tone singing, made David’s agonized lament, “Oh, my son! Would to God I had died for thee,” no mere figure of speech.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” represents the dramatic high point of the Seven Last Words, but the choices again brought out unexpected nuances of feeling while remaining reasonably pertinent to Jesus’s cry of despair. In Poulenc’s Lenten motet “Vinea mea electa” (My chosen vineyard), a riveting mixture of refined sweetness and bitter protest (“How is thy sweetness turned into bitterness?”), beautifully shaped phrases often give way without warning to jarring high chords often of extreme dissonance. Skylark’s impeccable intonation, highly disciplined dynamics, and varied articulation allowed this demanding work to have its full impact. Billings’s “Plymton” psalm harmonization specified no particular text, but Karl Kroeger’s choice of Psalm 120 fits it admirably (“In deep distress I oft have cried to God”). Guard drew gradual crescendos in the outer verses, while in the central verse he assigned to alto Douglas Dodson, a chorally accompanied solo which seemed curiously understated in view of the wrathful text. Still, the psalm’s final crescendo culminated with memorable force in another fortissimo bare-fifths chord.
The next two Words each had a single piece by a living composer, both of which Skylark performed with their customary skill and vivid communication. For “I thirst” Guard chose an Icelandic psalm setting, “Þann heilaga kross” (On the holy cross) by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977). This mesmerizing work generally uses organum-like open fifths in the men’s voices to accompany and offset the melody in the women’s voices, but also frequently clouds the harmonies with expressive dissonance in an uncanny evocation of unquenched thirst and pain that rises and falls but never disappears altogether.
A fantasia on a Billings hymn, “Death may dissolve,” as conceived by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963), put across the penultimate Word, “It is finished.” Tenor Alexander Nishibun sang the first verse with urgency and apt ornamentation, and the second leaves Billings’s own choral harmonization intact; the remaining three verses are variations of increasing complexity. The fascination consists of the well-maintained clarity of the hymntune in the center of ever more colorful harmonies.
For the final Word, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” Guard once more selected a pair of very different works. The beloved spiritual “Deep River,” arranged by the late Gerre Hancock, employed a veritable tapestry of rich harmony to evoke the consolation and peace of the promised land. Despite many chords of more than eight tones, Skylark achieved an ideal balance of warmth (i.e., small vibrato) and transparency while always emotionally engaged in the text. Stepping back four centuries, the second piece,“In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” by Tudor-era composer John Sheppard (1515-1558), stood alone on this program for setting the biblical text of one of the Last Words, and offered still more evidence, if any were needed, of Skylark’s marvelous versatility. The silken blend of voices in the polyphony made a most pleasing sensual contrast to the chastely beautiful unisons of the chant sections, depicting a soul serenely accepting transition into a different existence.
The works listed in the leaflet concluded with a short epilogue, the traditional hymn “Just As I Am,” arranged as a solo for baritone Dana Whiteside. With handsome, heartfelt choral support from the rest of the ensemble, he brought evangelical fervor. The audience responded fervently in a standing ovation that was truly merited, all but demanding an encore. Guard and the ensemble gave us “Angel Band,” a bluegrass hymn (“My day is almost done”) arranged by Shawn Kirchner. Fittingly, it offered a delectable recapitulation of many of the styles heard earlier: rural folk-tune, shape note, the rich arrangement styles of Shaw/Parker and Hancock, and even an Anglican-style descant. This was merely a final tour de force in a program boasting many. While Skylark’s international career seems to be taking flight, they appear to have enthusiastic audiences already established in their bases of Boston and Atlanta; I only hope this will lead to more frequent performances here. I daresay their performing and programming talents will be recognized as exceptional wherever they go.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.